Bar Harbor is home to a cutting edge medical research facility that’s at the cusp a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.
In Hancock County’s Jackson Lab, an associate professor is working on a treatment method that he says could lead to, “treatment as unique as the individual.”
A key component of most cancers is genetic instability — or mutations within a person’s DNA.
One group of researchers is confident that the treatment method they’re working on could help prevent those changes.
They even formed a company to combat cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.
Side effects are unacceptable. That’s the slogan for Cyteir Therapeutics, based in Bar Harbor’s Jackson Lab. Kevin Mills is the company’s co-founder and lead researcher.
He asked Mills, “What is the attraction to coming here and working here?”
Mills said, “Boy, the attraction to being at Jax is, there’s no better institution in the world at doing mammalian genetics and the type of human relevant disease modeling and basic biological discovery. There’s no place better in the world than right here in Bar Harbor.”
He and others have developed a drug designed to treat blood and bone marrow cancers. They haven’t used it directly on human patients yet, they hope to soon.
“To really take what we have done in the laboratory to understand the basic biology of lymphoma and leukemia and begin to translate that into real, potential clinical applications,” said Mills.
So far, their medicine has been tested on lab mice and human tumors, donated by nearby hospitals. Kristen Lamont is a post doctoral assistant.
“I know that other research institutions that are even affiliated with hospitals sometimes have difficulty getting that access to patient material and so the fact that Jax is spear-heading it here in Maine is really special,” said Lamont.
They have two key challenges; minimizing the side effects of treatment and restricting resistance to their medicine. Traditional treatment methods present a catch-22 conundrum. A cell’s natural ability to repair damage, done by chemotherapy, is a major cause of resistance. But by targeting naturally occurring DNA damage repair, they can target specific rogue genes without damaging healthy cells.
Lamont said, “And so, over the next generation of cancer therapies we are actually looking at broader mechanisms at play that we can use to kind of undermine the cellular biology that is happening in those cells themselves and targeting DNA damage repair is a really powerful way to do that.”
“We will be able to design therapies that target the specific genetic makeup of the cancer to the individual. So, instead of a, kind of, one size fits all treatment, we will analyze the cancer in the patient and then we will design customized, personalized therapy that’s treats that individual for their genetic makeup and their individual cancer,” said Mills.
They hope these discoveries will allow them to treat patients longer and with different combinations of treatment.
“So I have incredible hope and incredible optimism that we are on the cusp of an entirely new era in medicine, in cancer and lots of other diseases,” said Mills.
Thanks to a partnership with hospitals like Eastern Maine Medical Center, a clinical trial for their medicine could be on the market by the end of the year.